The early nineteenth century was a turbulent time. Economic depression was exacerbated by returning soldiers flooding the job market after the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, and the Industrial Revolution was causing food shortages and new patterns of employment. One radical group was called the Spencean Philanthropists, after the radical speaker Thomas Spence. Led by Arthur Thistlewood, they were a revolutionary group involved in unrest and propaganda, with the ultimate goal of starting a revolution. They wanted to assassinate the cabinet, seize key buildings, overthrow the government and establish a Committee of Public Safety to oversee a radical revolution.
The death of King George III on the 29th of January sparked a political revolution. The Spencean Philanthropists planned to take advantage of the confusion, and assassinate the Prime Minister (Lord Liverpool) and all the cabinet ministers when they gathered for a dinner at the home of Lord Harrowby. However, George Edwards, the groups’ second in command, was a police spy, and there was never any risk of the plot succeeding. Thanks to Edwards, the Home Office knew about the entire thing, and the cabinet dinner was a fiction designed to entrap the group.
We will probably never know how many people were involved in the conspiracy—there were a lot of groups sympathetic to the aims of the Spencean Philanthropists—but 13 men were arrested in a dramatic showdown in the groups’ rented headquarters in Cato Street. The rented building was a stable and hayloft, close to Lord Harrowby’s House in Grosvenor Square. On the 23rd of February Richard Birnie, the Bow Street magistrate, waited in a pub across the road with 12 members of the Bow Street Runners, predecessors of the Metropolitan Police. They were waiting for promised reinforcements from the Coldstream Guards, but at 7:30pm they decided to go in alone.
In the resulting scuffle Arthur Thistlewood killed Richard Smithers, one of the Bow Street Runners, and escaped out a back window with 3 others. They were arrested a few days later. Some of the conspirators gave evidence on the others to avoid conviction, so on the 28th of April 10 men were sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered for high treason. This barbaric punishment was commuted for all 10, but that’s not as good as it sounds—5 men were hung and beheaded, and the other 5 were transported to Australia. Thistlewood and 4 others were executed at the infamous Newgate jail on the 1st of May 1820.
Edwards did not give evidence during the trial. Police spies were controversial at the time, and Edwards was accused of being an agent provocateur—he had suggested targeting the dinner in the first place, and he had even provided money to help the conspirators buy weapons. Some people questioned whether the group would ever have gone so far if it wasn’t for the spy who was supposed to be trying to stop them.
What would have happened if the Cato Street Conspiracy had succeeded? Whether it would have sparked the uprising Thistlewood hoped for, or merely put new faces in the same old positions of power is impossible to predict. Nevertheless, it was a bold and desperate attempt to cause change, and although I can’t approve of the Spencean Philanthropists’ methods, I can’t help but admire their vision.
Sources and Further Reading
Anon. “Cato Street Conspiracy.” Wikipedia. Last modified 12th December 2015, accessed 22nd January 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cato_Street_Conspiracy
Anon. “The Cato Street Conspiracy.” The National Archives. No date, accessed 22nd January 2016. Available at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/rights/cato.htm
Bloy, Marjie. “The Cato Street Conspiracy: 23 February 1820.” The Victorian Web. Last modified 30th August 2003, accessed 22nd January 2016. Available at http://www.victorianweb.org/history/riots/cato.html
Marjie, Bloy. “The Cato Street Conspiracy: 23 February 1820.” A Web of English History. Last modified 12th January 2016, accessed 22nd January 2016. Available at http://www.historyhome.co.uk/c-eight/distress/cato.htm
Simpkin, John. “Cato Street Conspiracy.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 22nd January 2016. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/PRcato.htm